- Luis Nicolau Parés:Reply to the Review of J. Lor and Matory
Professor J. Lorand Matory’s thorough critique of the English translation of my book, which was first published in Brazil in 2006, did not come to me as a complete surprise. He and I have known each other for some years, and we have shared with each other interests in the cultural history of Candomblé, in particular the place and role of the Jeje nation. We have discussed our interpretative divergences in private and in public, and I have referred to some of them in writing (Nagôization, 2005; Birth, 2005; Formation). I do appreciate and feel honored that such a distinguished scholar has devoted some of his precious time to reviewing my book, giving me the chance to revisit my over-a-decade-old argument in the light of his provoking challenges. Yet, after reading his essay (certainly more than a standard review), I wondered why he had taken the effort to write 15 single-spaced pages of meticulous criticism on a work he ultimately dismisses as theoretically old-fashioned and full of errors and inconsistencies. If it is so worthless, why care about it in the first place?
In this sense I much appreciate the editors of The Americas giving me the opportunity to reply. There is no way I can answer all the issues raised by Matory’s review, so I will focus on those I judge to be most relevant for advancing our debates concerning Afro-Brazilian [End Page 628] cultural history. My understanding is that the book, already in its third edition in Brazil, stands for itself and should be my best defense. Anybody curious enough to read it will easily realize that in many instances Matory’s assessments have deliberately silenced, flattened or misread part of my argument, regrettably portraying my position under what I consider to be a distorting light.
To frame his critique Matory resurrects the classic debate that has long dominated Afro-American studies and became central from the 1970s onward. This interpretative and to a certain extent ideological antagonism opposes the scholars who highlight cultural continuities between Africa and Afro-America and those who underscore discontinuities and the cultural creative synthesis developed in the New World. The former approach, mostly preoccupied in identifying “Africanisms,” is associated with a Herskovitsian memory retention model and is usually contrasted to the Mintz and Price creolization model that emphasizes the critical role of slave societies in shaping the new Afro-American cultures. At this stage, one would have liked to see this reductionist polarization passed by, but that, it seems, is not so easy.
After hammering the reader with more than 18 mentions of Herskovits and the Herskovitsian model, Matory’s strategy to corner me on one side of the debate becomes very obvious. According to him I am interested only in privileging African origins and the tracing of precise African configurations of belief and practice in Bahia. This linear “out of Africa” movement, narrowly focused on cultural survivals, would have led me to ignore transformation, change, agency and the Atlantic dialogue.
The problem with this biased assumption is that from the start of the book I invoke this debate and very explicitly place myself somewhere else: “I argue the need to understand the simultaneity or synchronicity of continuity and discontinuity processes, as well as the importance of understanding the proportion between these dynamics. The problem is a question of emphasis, and my own stress does not fall on ‘africanisms’ or ‘inventions,’ but on the complex interaction between the two” (Formation, p. xv; my italics).
Throughout the book and by means of the Jeje case, my aim is to both describe and understand this complex interaction. I present continuities and discontinuities in the attempt to assess the interplay between them. If anything, my theoretical alignment in the debate assumes an in-between position, though this runs the obvious risk of dissatisfying both sides. The Jeje-Mahi diacritica I examine in the two last chapters of the book can be interpreted as resulting from the combination of two main cultural processes that, though apparently contradictory, are not...